Rich Kenah of Atlanta Track Club on New Olympic Qualifying: “I hope [they] reconsider the damage this will do to the Olympic movement”

March 12, 2019

The IAAF announced a new world ranking system and qualifying system for the Olympics that could severely impact the significance of the US Olympic Marathon Trials.

In the United States, the Olympic Marathon Trials and the Olympic Track and Field Trials are simple and on live national TV because they are full of drama and dreams that can easily be understood. Finish top 3 and you make the Olympic team.

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Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club, addresses the media in advance of the 2014 AJC Peachtree Road Race (Photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

The new ranking system is still being sorted out, but when it comes to the Olympic Marathon Trials, there is a chance a top-3 finish will not put an up-and-comer on the team.

We reached out to the Atlanta Track Club, the host of the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, and they responded with a comment by Executive Director Rich Kenah, the bronze medallist at 800m at the 1997 World Championships. Kenah said:

The thrill of a U.S. Olympic Trials is unrivaled.  USA Track & Field’s make or break selection system of a top three finish at the Trials while attaining a reasonable qualifying mark allows every participant and spectator to dare to dream regardless of an athlete’s seed time at the start line.  With due respect to the leadership at the IAAF and the decision makers involved with yesterday’s announcement, Atlanta Track Club is concerned that the uncertainty created by this massive change from past practices will render a U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the Marathon irrelevant for participating athletes and wildly confusing for the media assigned to cover them.  I recognize the need for a credible world rankings system, but I hope the powers that be reconsider the damage this will do to the Olympic movement in the US, the organizations committed to organize Trials events and most importantly – the athletes who are chasing their Olympic dream in 2020.

The new ranking system treats all national championships the same in terms of place bonus. So winning the Belize National Marathon Championships (this doesn’t exist) is the same as winning the United States Olympic Marathon Trials or Kenyan Trials (doesn’t exist either) in terms of performance bonus. Also winning the US marathon champs in an off year like 2018 provides the same amount of bonus points as winning the Olympic Trials. That is ridiculous.

The US Olympic Trials is treated the same as an IAAF Bronze Label marathon, which is absurd. You can be a Bronze Label marathon if you have five athletes (from different countries) who have run sub-30:00 for 10k/10,000, or sub-1:04:00 for the half or sub-2:16 for the marathon in the previous 36 months. For the women, the standards are 37:00, 1:15:00, and 2:38:00. In reality, the US Olympic Marathon Trials from a quality perspective would probably qualify as a IAAF Gold Label marathon (five athletes either sub-28:00, sub-1:01, or sub-2:10:00 or sub-32:00, sub-71:00, or sub-2:28 or top 25 at Olympic/World marathon or top 20 at World XC/World Half) if it wasn’t for the fact that you have to have athletes from five different countries. Update: The standards we talked about were for 2017 but they have changed so we deleted those sentences.

Under the new ranking system, finishing top 10 in a World Marathon Major (WMM) gets one an automatic qualification for the Olympics, but finishing top 3 in the Olympic Marathon Trials (a harder accomplishment often times in our book) does not and is treated the same as getting top 3 in the Belize National Marathon Championships.

A simple solution would be for the IAAF to acknowledge getting top 3 at the US Olympic Trials is equal to finishing top 10 in a WMM. The Olympic Marathon Trials are a huge race that athletes run instead of World Marathon Majors and the Olympic qualifying system needs to reflect this.

Editor’s note: Within minutes of publishing, we added in the part about it being the same as a Bronze Label marathon and also added in the part about an off year US marathon champs counting the same as an Olympic Trials.

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